Akira was partially responsible for making anime popular in the west. It was an inspiration on many western films, and is considered a classic in its genre. It also has, like many films considered to be the best, a plot which is almost totally unfathomable.
Akira began as a manga by Katsuhiro Otomo, which ran from 1982 to 1990. Otome also directed and wrote the screenplay for the film which came out in 1988 and thus the film mainly focuses on the first half of Otomo’s story. Akira is considered to be one of the great examples of Japanese cyberpunk, alongside Ghost in the Shell (No. 83), but whereas the latter went on to spawn several films, TV series and other related works, Akira is currently limited to just the manga and the film – although attempts to make an American live-action version have been on and off for several years.
The film begins in 1988, where (inaccurately) an explosion destroys most of Tokyo resulting in the start of World War III. The movie then moves forward to 2019, where the new city of Neo Tokyo (New Tokyo) has been built on a landfill in the middle of Tokyo Bay. Neo Tokyo is a city wrecked by constant turmoil: crime, rioting, violent police, etc. Amongst those living in Neo Tokyo include a motorcycle gang called the Capsules, led by Shotaro Kaneda. One night, another member of the gang, Tetsuo Shima, almost runs into a boy called Takeshi, an esper with the face of an old man who has been released from a government lab by underground revolutionaries. Tetsuo is taken to hospital for his injuries during the accident, while the rest of the Capsules are arrested.
While treated, it is observed by the military that Tetsuo has psychic powers. These powers are similar to those of another esper named Akira, who was unable to control his powers and was the one who caused the destruction of the original Tokyo. Tetsuo escapes from hospital and returns to the Capsules, but later he begins to suffer a form of mental breakdown and returns to hospital.
Kaneda becomes friends with one of the revolutionaries, a girl called Kei, and together with her allies they try and rescue Tetsuo. Tetsuo meanwhile is targeted by Takashi and his esper allies in a failed assassination attempt. Eventually Tetsuo flees again. Soon chaos begins to take an even tighter hold on Neo Tokyo. The city is placed under martial law as Tetsuo’s powers become seemingly uncontrollable, while Kaneda tries to think of a way to save the life of his friend.
There are several reasons as to why Akira is a great film, despite the complicated plot. One is the animation. Before Akira it was often the custom in anime to limit the animation. For example, characters would only move their mouths while their faces remained still. Akira changed this by being the first anime to use “pre-scored dialogue” – the dialogue was recorded first and then animation was made to match what had been said. It also used early computer animation, and the large budget (¥1.1billion / $11million) allowed the animators to depict a truly futuristic-looking city. There are also the little touches too, such as the way the motorbike lights streak at night.
Another key factor is the film’s influence. The film did not recoup the entire budget, making ¥750million at the box office; but Akira helped to bring anime to wider attention of people in the west, especially in the USA. In 2005 a Channel 4 poll named Akira as the 16th greatest cartoon ever, and the second best anime after Spirited Away (No. 42) which came 8th in the same poll. It has been frequently described as an influence on The Matrix, and has been compared to films such as Blade Runner.
Perhaps it is no surprise that the Americans have frequently tried to make a live-action version. Given the track record on American adaptations of anime, it is arguably a good thing that such a project has yet to fully materialise. Talks about attempts to adapt Akira date back to 2002. Over the years actors ranging from Keanu Reeves, James Franco, Zac Efron, Justin Timberlake, Joaquin Phoenix and Garrett Hedlund have been linked at some point to play Kenada. However, George Takei has previously said that to get white actors to star in the film would offend both Asians and fans of the original work. I for one agree with Takei.
Akira may be a hard watch in terms of the plot, but to look at it is stunning, even though it was made over 25 years ago.
Akira is released on DVD, Blu-Ray and as a combined Blu-Ray / DVD Steelbook from Manga Entertainment.